Movie Review: Downsizing
There’s a pivotal scene about midway through “Downsizing” which put me on the edge of my seat anticipating of a revelation of something deeply profound.
Unfortunately from that point forward, the entire second half of the movie fumbles what otherwise is a magnificently creative setup and hypothetical predicament worth pondering. In the end, we’re left with what amounts to an empty shell of a fascinating premise and a squandered opportunity. By failing to deliver on the opening act, “Downsizing” reduces itself to an instantly-forgettable intellectual cop-out which had the potential of becoming the biting social commentary of the year in film. This abrupt failure stems from creative missteps and confusion over what the movie intended to be.
Is “Downsizing” a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it science fiction? Is it intended to be overt political commentary? The film tries to be all these things to all audiences, and hence, misses the mark on connecting with anyone. It could have been funnier, but isn’t. It could have been more dramatic, but isn’t. It could have been the “Slaughterhouse Five” of our generation, but isn’t. It might have a riveting statement on man-made climate change, but isn’t. One simply wishes the filmmakers would have picked a single ambition and then delivered.
“Downsizing” begins with an intriguing proposition. If given an opportunity, would you shrink yourself down to about 1/30th your normal size and relocate to the confines of a protected Lilliputian-like mini-colony where all the luxuries of daily life are provided at just a fraction of the cost? In other words, if you could downsize and live the rest of your life as a king (or queen) — would you go along?
There’s more to the proposition than meets the eye. Downsizing might be the only hope for the future of humanity. Indeed, the most pressing crisis of our time is the diminishing supply of natural resources within an increasingly crowded world of mouths to feed. Overpopulation is certain to intensify, which shall inevitably lead to the mass suffering of future generations manifested in war, famine, and catastrophe. Let’s face it, the present course and rate of consumption is unsustainable. That’s not merely the premise of a fictional movie script. That’s a fact.
This is the dilemma faced by Paul and Audrey Safranek, a middle-class All-American couple played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. In the latest film written and directed by Alexander Payne, whose previous screen credits include — Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, Damon plays our heroic Everyman, an occupational therapist employed by the Omaha Steaks company. He struggles to pay his monthly mortgage and can’t get ahead in the heartland. He’s pretty much stuck in a rut, trapped in a wheel-spinning, unsatisfying rat race. The Safraneks drive a ten-year-old car and always seem to be one mortgage payment behind.
The couple decides they’re fed up with the constant struggle of living normal lives. For reasons less to do with the altruism of saving the planet and everything to do with pursuing avarice indulgences at merely a fraction of the cost, Paul Safranek makes the anti-giant leap of faith. He downsizes.
What happens the remainder of the movie won’t be revealed here. You’ll have to see the film for yourself to discover a potential kaleidoscope of possibilities. However, the most intriguing premise of “Downsizing” is the supposition that Utopia is possible when, in fact, it is not. Paradise is lost.
Alas, there is no such thing as Shangri-La, which exists as a figment of the imagination only in fiction. There’s no escape from class and division. Every society needs plumbers. And maids. And cooks. And ditch diggers. Everyone can’t live the good life like Paul Safranek, who voluntarily immerses himself within a illusory world of faux-fantasy and then gradually realizes the folly of the mirage. If there are rich, then there must be poor. If there are glutenous, then there must be hungry. If there are healthy, then there must be sick. If there is pleasure, then there must be pain. If there are insiders, there must be outsiders. True egalitarianism is but a myth.
That’s the stark message that should have been readily inherent in this alluring tale of intrigue and adventure, which nosedives into a mishmash of petty sentimentality. Director Payne nibbles at the branches of something far more serious, but then doesn’t seem to trust his audience enough to ponder the serious issues he raises. “Downsizing” nails the opening verse then bombs at the chorus. The movie ends up singing way out of tune.
All the performances are fine. Damon is perfectly cast as the film’s incarnate of George Bailey, entering the early stages of middle age and faced with questions of what he wants to make with the rest of his life. Christoph Waltz, the Academy Ward-winning actor (Inglourious Basterds) is perfectly typecast as the charismatic charlatan, a quirky pip-squeak neighbor in constant pursuit of his next con who embraces Damon’s character, although they’re polar opposites. Hong Chau also merits mention as Damon’s spiritual mentor, guidepost, and love interest later in the film.
There’s also the glaring flaw in the basic premise, which simply can’t be overlooked. Downsizing as a concept works only so long as there’s an ample supply of giants (normal-sized people) to ensure both the safety of the community-paradise and a consistent pipeline of cheap consumer goods. A bottle of Absolut Vodka costing $34.95 in the world of giants can amuse an entire neighborhood of tiny people for a year. A typical electric bill is 79 cents. For the system to work, a sizable percentage of the human population must remain normal-sized in order for the little people to enjoy their innate advantages. If everyone were to downsize, then there would be no one to spray the invasion of ants. Each time it rained would be The Great Flood. No one would be around to make the vodka. Faced with a two separate worlds, one big and one small, there would be haves and have nots.
Safranek isn’t faced with just one life-altering choice. Towards the end of the film, he must again make another, which is far more intriguing. This critical scene provided Payne with an extraordinary opportunity to reveal a deluge of deeply meaningful philosophical notions about the meaning of life and our responsibilities as children of the universe. Instead of tackling this compelling set up head on and providing audiences with plenty of post-movie debate fodder, Payne opts instead to romanticize his subject matter. We’re left with a ho-hum reaction as we leave the theater.
“Downsizing” is quite a clever concept that’s well acted and is beautifully shot. It’s stoked with moments of genuine revelation. It attempts to take on serious subject matter — including economic inequity, race and class, climate change, and even how to survive what could be a perilous downfall for humanity. However, the film seems blatantly uncertain of what it it intends to deliver and lapses into an inglorious, feel-good betrayal of higher expectations. By the end, we’ve simply run out of patience.
I give “Downsizing” a 6/10.